Only three movies in and we’re already at our first movie musical! As a huge fan of musicals, it is rare to find a one that I don’t appreciate. Add one of the greatest film actors of all time in James Cagney and you get the 1942 classic Yankee Doodle Dandy. So how could the
cosmic combination only amount to a B rating?
As much as I hate to say it, the film’s downfall resides with its star, James Cagney. One of the all-time greats, known primarily for founding the classic gangster archetype, Cagney plays the role of George M. Cohan, a lovable song-and-dance man. Based on a true story, the film follows Cohan as he goes from blossoming child star to blacklisted prima donna to Americana stage icon. Despite his infectious showmanship and superb dancing throughout the movie, Cagney’s performance falls short because he simply doesn’t sing!
The film is extremely reminiscent of classic non-integrated musicals (meaning musicals where the characters themselves are performers and, rather than breaking into spontaneous song, do all of their numbers on stage in front of an audience). It reminds one of some of the great Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers pictures (The Astaire-Rogers hallmark Swing Time is #90 on our list). Yankee Doodle Dandy is lighthearted and captivating, but the element it lacks is Astaire’s light baritone. Instead, Cagney, a big name not known for his singing voice, sort of speak-sings all of the tunes. The lack of musicality from our main actor keeps the numbers, which are otherwise spectacular, from really taking off.
Now, it goes without saying that Cagney gives an otherwise compelling performance (he
won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as George M. Cohan), and that his lack of musicality does not fully detract from what is otherwise a delightfully enjoyable picture. The film is worth seeing if not for the dance numbers alone, where Cagney does demonstrate a remarkable amount of skill.
Despite my qualms, the enchanting nature of Yankee Doodle Dandy earns it a B, and the somewhat nostalgic sense of patriotism that permeates the film leads to a ranking of 7 on the Liberty Scale. In my opinion, it’s the sort of movie you just can’t dislike. Like me, you may not walk away considering your life permanently changed, but you likely won’t walk away regretting the two hours you invested in the life of George M. Cohan.
We’re moving right along. Next is the science fiction masterpiece Blade Runner.
Do you disagree? Do you feel worse-off for having invested time in Yankee Doodle Dandy? Or did you find the film refreshing and nostalgic? Were you a fan of Cagney’s speak-singing song style? Let us know!
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